NORDERSTEDT, Germany - A festive atmosphere descended upon this quaint Hamburg suburb on Tuesday, as the U.S. national team held its only practice of the World Cup that was open to the public. An enthusiastic crowd was on hand in the Edmund Plambeck Stadium, with some eager children decked out in red, white and blue.
U.S. head coach Bruce Arena and the mayor of the city exchanged gifts. The mayor was given a U.S. jersey, and Arena received a soccer ball and a set of Norderstedt emblazoned golf balls. It made one wonder which item will end up on eBay first.
The Americans then practiced for about 75 minutes, but aside from getting some work in, the session was also about public relations.
"We just wanted to thank the city for all the support we've had here," Arena said. "And just to thank the community, because we are a little bit of a nuisance. We come through with our procession of sirens everyday, and we rattle them a little bit. So the least we can do is to thank [them] for all of their support and hospitality."
Hospitality is one thing, but to an information starved press corps, the practice was the first, and perhaps only opportunity to see the team put through its paces before their June 12 opener against the Czech Republic. The players' every move, in particular those who have been nursing injuries, was examined with a focus that bordered on the obsessive. Every stumble, every collision carried with it a vague anxiety reminiscent of a parent at a youth game, so much so that other concerns like sharpness on the ball were secondary.
But at the end of the session, it looked as if it was all systems go for the U.S. team. Claudio Reyna looked to be feeling no ill effects from the hamstring strain that sidelined him for the last two American friendlies, and the same was true for John O'Brien and his various ailments, although he didn't look as active or as sharp as the U.S. captain. Eddie Lewis sat out some of the drills, but that was due to the 70-odd minutes he logged in Monday night's closed door scrimmage with Angola.
The Americans won the match 1-0 on Brian McBride's header midway through the first half, but Arena's satisfaction came from giving his players a brief run-out, as well as experimenting with some tactical options.
"The Angola game was just practice," Arena said. "We don't even concern ourselves with the result. Both teams played about 20 players. I don't know how you walk away and make a whole lot out of that."
Arena and the majority of the players were otherwise mum about the evening. The veil of secrecy surrounding the event was such that the American players didn't even wear numbers during the match. Lewis was one of those players who was a bit more forthcoming.
"Our organization was good and we did a good job of keeping the ball on the ground," Lewis said of Monday's match. "It would have been nice to score another goal or two, but we created some good chances. And as far as the exercise was concerned, it was a success."
Aside from Lewis' disclosure, just how many minutes were logged by individual players, and what formations were trotted out, remained a mystery. Lewis added that he had seen time both at left back and in the midfield, leaving one to surmise that Arena made the most of his opportunity to experiment. Claudio Reyna also confirmed that he played in the match, although he refused to indicate how much. There were few other details, but the bottom line is that the vast majority of the players participated, and no one was the worse for it.
"[Arena] wanted to give everybody a game and it was staggered in terms of minutes," Lewis said. "Toward the end, we had quite a few players in different spots, so it got a little sloppy, and you can understand that."
The U.S. now looks to be well positioned for its match against the Czechs, especially given the injury bug that has hit the Czech team. While Tomas Rosicky and Tomas Galasek appear to be recovering, forward Milan Baros hobbled out of the team's last friendly against Trinidad & Tobago with a foot injury, and Vlad Smicer already has been ruled out for the tournament.
While there is still some time between now and the opening group match, Arena no doubt is finding comfort in the apparent recovery of Reyna. The Manchester City midfielder has been able to train every day since his arrival, and his presence allows Arena to expand his attacking options, especially with regard to Landon Donovan, who is now able to resume a freer, more creative role in the U.S. attack playing underneath McBride.
Aside from his onfield contributions, Reyna also will be counted upon to provide valuable leadership, and that includes keeping his side on an even keel in the remaining days before the first match.
"As an athlete at this level, you have to believe that you can beat anyone, and we have that within the team," Reyna said. "But it's important that we stay grounded, humble, and let other teams have all of the pressure. We're still not the favorites to come out of our group, but we have the belief we can do it."
And there are only six more days until that belief is put to the test.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org